Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 11, 2013
Tomorrow begins the conclave that will elect the new pope. Almost everyone recognizes the word conclave refers to papal elections, but few know what it really means.
It comes from the Latin expression cum clave, which means locked “with a key.” It goes back to 1274 when it was decreed that cardinals should be locked in seclusion as they voted to elect the next bishop of Rome.
The door where they were voting was locked for two reasons: to keep them in and to keep others out.
The Cardinals needed to be kept in so that they would be forced to get on with the business of a pope. During the Middle Ages, one of the great frustrations was that papal elections would regularly take longer than a year, as complicated rivalries among powerful cardinals would produce intransigent impasses. One election took 33 months. Many reformers in the Church — from popes to civil leaders to ordinary Catholics— justifiably thought it was ridiculous.
So they began to lock the Cardinals in and set up a series of strong incentives to motivate them to arrive quickly at consensus After three days they’d be limited to one meal a day; after five days, that meal would be just bread and water. Whatever income they were due from work or lands was totally suspended. All of this inspired the Cardinals to do their job as expeditiously as possible!
Lengthy conclaves are not an issue today, thanks be to God. The longest in the last 110 years took just five days and 14 ballots. If the pattern holds true to form this time, we’ll have a new Pope by Sunday.
But the conclave door was locked also to keep others out.
There had been many attempts, some successful, to influence the outcome of the papal elections. Certain nations even claimed the right to ratify the winner or veto a particular candidate. Even as late as 1903, Austria vetoed the election of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, leading the way to the election of Pope Pius X, the founder of the Diocese of Fall River, and the one who definitively changed the rules to prevent such outside interference.
Since 1878 the conclaves have taken place inside the Sistine Chapel. It’s there tomorrow that the Cardinal electors will enter to choose a new pontiff.
Until the last election, the Sistine’s doors were locked and the Cardinals remained within until everything was over. Cots or simple metal beds would be set up surrounded by curtains. Food would be brought in and consumed on makeshift tables. Long lines would form outside the few available bathrooms.
No amount of joy at being surrounded by some of the greatest artistic masterpieces in history could remedy the aching backs, sleepless night due to other cardinals’ snoring, and the unhygienic indignities associated with public restrooms.
This conclave, however, is the second in which the cardinals will, in a sense, “break the conclave,” unlocking the doors twice a day to allow the Cardinals to return to the Domus Sanctae Marthae.
This relatively simple 129-room residence was commissioned by John Paul II in 1996 to house the cardinals during a papal election and to provide convenient housing for priests working in the Vatican at other times.
It’s there that the Cardinals will take their meals, pray, get a good night’s rest and a daily shower, and carry on their one-on-one or small group conversations about who the next pope shall be.
The Cardinals are all moving into the Domus tonight in preparation for tomorrow morning’s special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the election of a pope, for the solemn entrance into the Sistine Chapel, and for their first ballot.
Some will sleep well tonight. Others may not sleep much at all.